As if we needed any more confirmation, director Quentin Tarantino has proven again that he is a singular talent. There’s a real irony in what makes his films unique, because his art depends so heavily on referencing other movies. The man is like a cinematic blender; he fills himself with his favorite genres, and he violently liquefies them all into a wholly new product. The product this time is The Hateful Eight, a western that mines such distinct storytelling approaches as both an Agatha Christie drawing room murder mystery and John Carpenter’s The Thing, with more gallons of blood than Brian de Palma’s Carrie.
As big and loud and nauseating and hilarious as the movie is, it’s essentially a small chamber piece with a handful of characters talking to – and sometimes merely at – each other in a room for almost three hours. It could easily (and fascinatingly) be staged as a play. In fact, Tarantino first produced it as a staged reading with cast members like Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern already on board. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross by way of a grindhouse double feature. This eighth film by Tarantino is a blood soaked yarn that is by turns thrilling, disturbing, and troubling, but it further cements the director as a visual stylist and screenwriter who is unrivaled at his craft. The director’s attention to detail, and his loving devotion to the films of the past, is evident from frame one of The Hateful Eight, with an opening shot – filmed in beautiful 70mm Panavision – that is an incredibly slow pan of a gorgeous snow swept landscape.
Westerns are getting the treatment in this movie that he gave to exploitation movies in Grindhouse. If his last film, 2012’s Django Unchained, was an homage to the askew sensibilities of the Spaghetti Western, The Hateful Eight is honoring the classical Hollywood version of the same genre. This is The Alamo if it had been co-directed by Sam Peckinpah and Lucio Fulci. The “roadshow” cut of the film, which is the version I was able to see, even begins with a musical overture in the style of that Western classic. Supplying the overture and the rest of the score is legendary composer Ennio Morricone, whose music is deeply haunting and rich with atmosphere. The man who scored classics like Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West a half-century ago has only gotten better, if that’s even possible. Morricone didn’t have time to provide an entire score, so he gave Tarantino permission to license unused tracks that he previously wrote for John Carpenter’s aforementioned The Thing.
I’ve mentioned The Thing a lot so far in this review, before even getting into the details of The Hateful Eight’s plot. That’s because, besides the obvious western motif, The Thing is the biggest chunk of film history that went into Tarantino’s blender this time. So, the concoction that became The Hateful Eight tastes a lot like The Thing. Fans of that 1982 film love it for an all-consuming sense of paranoia that permeates the entire movie. You’ll find the same sensibility in The Hateful Eight. You’ll also find the star of The Thing, Kurt Russell. The actor’s performance in the new film is a meditation on the work of John Wayne that you almost can’t look away from. I say “almost” because Russell is joined on screen by a cadre of actors who turn in equally mesmerizing work.
Set in post-Civil War Wyoming, Russell plays bounty hunter John Ruth, who is bringing fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to the hangman for execution. On the way, the pair runs into Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), another bounty hunter, and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), the supposedly new sheriff of Red Rock where Daisy is meant to hang. The four, as well as their driver O.B. (James Parks), are forced to sit out a blizzard at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they meet four others also waiting for the storm to pass. Leigh vanishes inside the role of Domergue. She plays the criminal with a menace and ugliness that many other actresses would never attempt. Jackson has a great deal of fun with the language his longtime collaborator gives him, as does Tim Roth, who plays Oswaldo Mobray. Roth’s inimitable inflection and style make Mobray a complete gas to watch.
As is the case with most Tarantino projects, The Hateful Eight is ready-made for controversy. The director’s incessant need to fill his character’s mouths with the N word, and the misogyny displayed by every man towards Daisy are the most troubling aspects of the film. Depicting these things are not in and of themselves what’s troubling. It’s the glee Tarantino takes in portraying them that is. The way the men treat Daisy (specifically John Ruth) is played for the same laughs that the racist characters getting their comeuppance is. In light of Tarantino’s own N word laced performance in his 1994 film, Pulp Fiction, it’s obvious that at least part of the reason he uses the word so much is because he thinks it’s cool. His movies show affection for black culture, and statements he’s made in the past demonstrate that he thinks he’s justified in using the word because he considers himself in the club. In this way, he’s no better than a rich suburban white kid who appropriates black culture as kind of “cool” currency. A cynical view would be to suggest Tarantino has set his last few films in a time when use of the word by white characters was acceptable as a way to deflect criticism away from himself. I’m willing to give him more credit than that, because Tarantino is willing to explore in The Hateful Eight what being black in a racist white culture means.
The best example of this exploration is the movie’s dispelling of the odious, and ever present, argument that the Civil War was fought for any reason other than keeping African Americans as slaves. State’s Rights, Northern aggression, and any other asinine excuse as to why the South took up arms against the Union is forcefully rejected in The Hateful Eight. Every white character sympathetic to the rebel cause makes it clear that upholding the institution of slavery was the only reason for bloodshed, and the way they savor every delivery of that racial slur further proves that point. Jackson’s character also has a rather moving speech about why it’s necessary to use deceit in order to move through the white man’s world. It’s a speech that would fit into a contemporary drama perfectly. These themes don’t completely absolve Tarantino of his black culture appropriation, but they’re worth noting.
On a purely technical level, there are a few false notes that come in the second half of the movie. A voice-over narration is introduced that is absent in the first half, and it’s painfully clunky. The appearance of stuntwoman-turned-actress Zoë Bell threatens to derail the mood of the entire movie, but that can’t be blamed entirely on Bell’s less-than-stellar acting skills. The dialog and plot of this section of the movie suffer from the worst excesses of Tarantino’s writing. He gets too precious with the dialog, and a big reveal in the final act eschews the stripped down storytelling of the first half. The plot machinations in this part of the story don’t have the charm of the drawing room mystery aspects of the movie.
None of that takes away from the huge achievement The Hateful Eight is. The atmosphere Tarantino creates with this movie isn’t easily shaken, and the visceral effect it has can’t be overstated. The movie is visually daring and unforgettable. As is always the case with this unique filmmaker, after seeing his latest movie, I’m left excited to see it again, and anxious to find out what concoction comes out of the blender next.
Why it got 4 stars:
- The style and visual flair of The Hateful Eight fires on all cylinders. Like all great movies, seeing this one (especially on the big screen) is an experience. One to be savored.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I was disappointed that Tarantino didn’t include an Entr’acte title card and musical accompaniment during the intermission, as was the practice for the style of movie he is paying tribute to in The Hateful Eight. But, I was informed that the overture and possibly the intermission will be excised for the regular, non-roadshow exhibition of the movie. The movie itself might also be shortened. Not only does that disappoint me, it makes me sad.
- Walton Goggins' performance was the one of the titular eight that didn't work for me. In a movie bursting at the seams with overly theatrical performances, his outdoes them all, and I wanted him to dial it back considerably.